Lawmakers, administration clash over science funding

Lawmakers from both parties on Wednesday lamented the proposed fiscal 2008 research and development budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, while an administration official said NASA's future is at risk due to current congressional funding levels.

At a House Science and Technology Committee hearing, panel Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., also said the administration's R&D proposals ignore critical areas that experts have highlighted in past committee hearings -- namely teacher training and science education.

The committee convened to discuss the overall R&D budget request, "which really means" discussing "our nation's future competitiveness," Gordon said. Under the president's budget, he said, physical sciences would see gains under the American competitiveness initiative proposed by President Bush, but the money would be "more than offset by decreases to NASA science programs, among other cuts."

Overall funding for the National Science Foundation would increase, but "once again, funding for education programs at NSF would decline," Gordon said. "Not only does the American competitiveness initiative not focus on teacher training, it does not even contain a single science education component."

He also noted that NASA is not included in the president's competitiveness agenda, and he questioned whether that means the administration does not view aeronautics, earth and space sciences as "world-class" sciences.

John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the administration values NASA, "but frankly it's funded better than the physical sciences in these other agencies that have been under-funded for a long time -- and we need to catch up."

Committee ranking Republican Ralph Hall of Texas said it is important to "keep our word" with our international partners on planned space endeavors. A proposal to increase science, aeronautics and exploration funding by 3.1 percent may not be sufficient to ensure that NASA meets the president's goal of retiring the space-shuttle fleet in 2010 and launching a new spaceship in 2014.

Marburger said fiscal 2007 congressional funding would leave NASA at its fiscal 2006 level, with no increase, and would jeopardize the vision for space exploration plus priority earth and space science missions.

As for education funding, Marburger said the president's 2002 education law already has embarked on the reforms necessary to fuel competitiveness. In addition, the president has asked for $30 million in his 2008 NSF education budget for new awards under a mathematics and science education program for elementary and secondary schools.

"By no means has this component been ignored by the administration in terms of laying the foundation for future economic competitiveness," Marburger said.

Gordon maintained that the 2002 law is different than the competitiveness issue.

When a committee member broached the matter of nanotechnology R&D and its health consequences, Gordon said the committee will explore the issue over the next year. "I am very concerned that this field could meet something of the same fate as [genetically modified] grain," where the technology emerges before the public's faith and trust, he said.

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